Mystery of the ‘surgical strike’

Updated October 05, 2016


IT cannot get more absurd. While the Indians insist that they carried out a cross-LoC surgical military strike, the Pakistanis are befuddled by the claim. Either the Indians are hallucinating or the Pakistanis are in a complete state of denial. The riddle gets more confusing with the Indian claim of having destroyed ‘terrorist camps’ a few kilometres inside Azad Kashmir killing dozens of militants, and the Pakistani security forces unofficially claiming to have captured one Indian soldier who ‘strayed’ into our part. The mystery thickens.

There is no evidence substantiating the Indian boast of conducting cross-LoC preventive strikes demonstrating their new aggressive approach. This according to some Indian analysts, redefines its nuclear threshold.

There has certainly been an incessant exchange of fire between the two forces along the Line of Control over the past one week leaving two Pakistani soldiers dead. However, there has not been any clear answer by the Indian officials about where exactly the targeted camps were located. They have reportedly released some grainy videos of the operation feeding into the jingoistic frenzy of the local media. But that has failed to clear doubts. Surely the Indian claim has far too many holes — but so does our story.

Intriguingly, Pakistan has maintained a low profile throughout the crisis, focusing entirely on falsifying the Indian claims of a surgical strike. One may argue that it was not in our interest to cause the situation to escalate thus falling into the Indian trap. But there was no rationale in glossing over some facts that were already in the public domain. There is not one official confirmation of the report about the capture of the Indian soldier. In fact, it was an Indian minister who broke the news.

Perhaps we have deliberately ignored the message behind the Indian belligerence.

Later, Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi mentioned the incident in her speech at the United Nations. There was no word, however, from the military spokesman who is otherwise eager to comment on every subject. It is still not clear how the Indian soldier was captured if there was no incursion inside our territory. It is hard to buy the argument that the soldier just strayed into our territory crossing over the tight security fencing. All this is quite puzzling.

Initially, the Indian officials indicated that helicopters were used in the surgical operations, but they soon backtracked saying there were no aerial strikes and the cross-LoC operation just involved ground troops. The Indian forces apparently launched attacks simultaneously on several positions and reportedly the fire was promptly responded to by Pakistani troops.

Indeed, Indian military officials have not provided full details about the number of targets or the number of casualties, nor have they identified them. Undoubtedly, there is much ambiguity over what the surgical strikes by the Indian forces achieved exactly. But there is some indication that the Indian troops did come inside our territory, though it is not clear how far they penetrated.

Of course, incursion by the rival troops on both sides of the LoC is not unusual and there are some recent examples. But the context and scale of the latest infringement, and the fact that the Modi government has chosen to publicly announce it, has completely changed the situation. While in the past, neither side would acknowledge an incursion, it was different this time with New Delhi brazenly owning the act of aggression. Our response uncharacteristically has simply been to repudiate ‘Indian lies’.

It may be true that the Modi government has begun a trend of making exaggerated claims of conducting preventive strikes across its borders. One recent example was its claim to have destroyed the Naga rebel camps in an ambush inside Myanmar in 2015. That so-called surgical strike provoked huge criticism in India after some reports revealed that there were no rebel camps in that area.

But while trying to prove New Delhi’s claim wrong, perhaps we have deliberately ignored the message behind the Indian belligerence. It is not important whether technically speaking it was a surgical strike or just an incursion. The real issue is that the Modi government has set a new and dangerous precedent signalling its willingness to go to the extreme in the event of any militant strike on its soil in the future. It is what is described as Modi’s doctrine of aggressive diplomacy.

Indeed, the Modi government has been under pressure to up the ante after the Uri military camp attack to pacify public opinion that has been fed on the intense anti-Pakistan sentiments whipped up by the right-wing government itself. But the latest aggression was not just for local consumption. It was also meant to send a clear message to the international community about India’s new and more aggressive approach to deal with Pakistan. New Delhi’s growing influential position on the world scene has encouraged the Modi government to take a more reckless path.

“The Modi government wants to redefine the idea of ‘no escalation beyond’ the nuclear threshold. It believes the nukes have become a one-sided deterrent or a kind of umbrella under which Pakistan can carry out low-level activity to bleed India,” writes Shekhar Gupta, a leading Indian journalist. Some Indian analysts believe that Modi is willing to call what they describe as “Pakistan’s tactical nuclear bluff”.

What is most worrisome is that there seems to be little understanding in Islamabad about Modi changing even more than just the rules of the game. Surely, the growing perception of Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation has given further impetus to Modi getting more adventurous.

So far our response to the grave challenge has remained incoherent and patchy. We have failed even to present our case effectively to the international community and there is little hope of things changing for us. Although the two sides seem to have agreed to de-escalate the situation, it may not be too long before it flares up again.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2016